Suman Gopalan of Freshworks on how to impact the future of gender equity in tech

Swati Kumar
Suman Gopalan
May 2, 2019

The next installment in our series of posts about the current and future state of gender equity in the tech industry gave me the opportunity to talk with Suman Gopalan, Chief Human Resources Officer at Freshworks in Chennai, India. An engineer by education and businesswoman by trade, Suman has a unique perspective on the growth of women in tech as a member of the C-suite at Freshworks, particularly from the point of view as a member of the booming tech industry in India.

Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you ended up in your position at Freshworks?

I have a background in Computer Science and did my MBA with a specialization in HR. I started out as a Management Trainee, getting to learn about businesses and every single function. After that, I did my function in HR. So now I have about 20+ years of experience in HR across multiple organizations and industries. I’ve worked in Consumer Durables, IT, Marketing, Information Services and now I’m back again in IT. I’ve done a variety of roles from Country HR, Regional HR, and Global HR. The 20 years haven’t been quiet ones, to say the least.

What would you say has been your greatest key to success, particularly as a woman in a male-dominated industry?

I’m not sure I have done something different as a woman or thought of my contributions being different because I am a woman. I think the key to success still remains the same. It is a lot of hard work and the ability to differentiate yourself and setting your own standards higher than what is expected. It is the ability to take a few risks and do something that others wouldn’t do. It is about being dependable and always executing well and delivering on your commitments. I think, at the core of it, those are the keys to success, irrespective of whether you’re male or female.

Do you think the impact of your gender on your position in the workplace has evolved at all as you’ve climbed through the ranks at companies?

In Human Resources, you tend to have a lot of women. So you don’t have the same problems with gender equity that you typically see in Technology and other industries. But having said that, even today when you look at it, while the profession has a lot of women, the C-suite tends to be male-dominated and that's always been a dichotomy. The CHROs still tend to be men. Having said that, over time, I have seen more women who are rising into the C suite, not only in HR but also in other professions as well. I think companies are being more conscious about it.

What would an ideal, diverse tech company environment look like to you?

In an ideal environment for a tech company, I would love to see equal representation of men and women, across all levels. Not just at an entry level, where you get to see a lot of women but it dramatically declines as you progress through your career. So to me in an ideal environment, I would love to see a balance across all levels. True diversity for me is beyond the obvious of gender, race, ethnicity, etc. A truly diverse company is one that embraces different styles of working. It is the kind of organization which truly has no bias when it comes to the style of operation and your decision making. That’s the kind of environment anybody can thrive in, irrespective of your educational pedigree or your ethnicity or your gender.

Can you remember where you were and what your reaction was when you first found out about what would be the beginning of the #MeToo movement back in 2016?

I remember having this conversation with my husband, about the whole #MeToo movement because he was doing a workshop for UN Women and it was a very big deal. He asked me whether this was very prevalent and I told him that it really is. That's when the light bulb went on for him and he realized that this is just so much more prevalent than we think. It's just become sort of an accepted norm, that women are going to have a hard time achieving gender equity so we just adapt ourselves to it. I remember having this conversation with him about how we've all learned to build our lives around it, versus really challenge it. And to me, that's what the #MeToo movement did. It really challenged what we’ve widely accepted. We think that’s the way things are just going to be and that we have to figure out a way to survive in that.

What did you expect the impact of the movement to be on the tech industry?

I think two things, the tech industry tends to be very dominated by men. So I think the whole notion of being more diverse and the importance of being more diverse just got a lot more attention because of the #MeToo movement. Companies had major concerns about the kind of environment that they had in their organization, which probably wouldn't have been so much of a focal point hadn't it been all of this conversation that was happening around #MeToo. So I think it gave people the ability to voice a lot more of what was going on and that is of utmost importance especially when you are in a minority.

How did the actual impact compare to your expectations? Are you satisfied with the progress made?

I think it's a beginning but we’re nowhere close to achieving what we want to achieve at the end of the day. Progress would be when we have balance, and when we have a safe working environment for everybody. I think it's going to take us at least a generation to get to that place. But what I really liked is that there is a lot more focus on it. Organizations are a lot more mindful that they have to put structures in place to be able to address this more proactively versus take it for granted that only when it happens, do you need to deal with it. Today, I think the consequences of your actions are much stronger than they would have been. If you even look at it 10 years back, people could get away with a lot. Today, what #MeToo has done is really make it harder for companies or organizations to actually overlook indiscretions like these. I like it that women now are a lot more aware. That they have the ability to speak up and that they don't have to feel like it's not okay to talk about it or that the spotlight is going to be on them. I think it's given them a voice and that’s what I'm really happy about.

What are your predictions for the future of women in tech over the next five years?

I do think we are at an inflection with all the talk and all the action that we are seeing around the need for diversity. The fact that women today are a lot more confident and outspoken is proof of that. I do think that this generation that is coming into the workforce will achieve far greater heights in tech than the previous generation did. I think they are enabled, they are empowered and they have the confidence and the ambition to make it happen.

In your opinion, what is the major blocker for women in tech within the workplace? Have women been doing their part to overcome this blocker? Have companies?

Whether in technology or otherwise, the biggest reason women tend to fall off the career path is due to their major life stage changes and that's our biggest leaky bucket, whether you're in advertising or in technology, or anywhere. It becomes harder to come back to technology. Because when you take a break, and you want to come back, your technology has changed so much that you're not contemporary anymore. Which is the reason we have a harder time bridging that gap for women, or ensuring that women can take a break and come back successfully.

I think what technology companies can do and should do a lot more is to be proactive about how we are able to help women assimilate back after the break. Because it's not like they have lost their skills. It's just some of that knowledge that is outdated. So we can do a lot more, we can be proactive in doing a lot more, I think we're all just trying to stay ahead in terms of our need for talent and we don't tend to be very planned. But if we truly want to achieve balance, we've got to address that. And we've got to plug that leak and ensure that we have a path for them to come back.

What is your opinion on the state of gender diversity at Freshworks?

At Freshworks, we have great diversity at the young career stage level and in fact, we want a lot more. So we've been very thoughtful this year to ensure that about 50% of our campus hires are all women. So we want to make sure that our funnel is continuing to grow to support gender equity. But again, like any other company, where our problem is, is really in terms of balance at a leadership level, and at a managerial level and so we're doing two things. This year, what we did on Women's Day was to relaunch this diversity initiative that we call Prism. The focus for this is to really see how we are able to support career development for women within Freshworks. So a big focus of that is around affirmative action to make sure that there is a balance. Some of this just happens when you do it thoughtfully. You have to make sure that if you have 50 positions you're hiring for at the manager level, you have to be deliberate about making sure that there is diversity in that.

The other part of it is around career development, to make sure that we continue to advance women and fast track them in some places to make sure that they continue to grow in their careers at Freshworks and that we have representation at every level. The third part is creating an empathetic workplace. We've done a lot to make sure that as a company when we grow, we tend to be very balanced in terms of our approach, and that we don't have unconscious biases of any nature, that we don't tend to become like a boys’ club or a techie hangout.

So we've done a lot of work in terms of making people aware of what can be some of the things that they tend to do, which can be seen as non-inclusive behavior, or, you know, not respectful of the diversity we have. We've had some very interesting responses and results to that but largely, I think people have been very appreciative in helping raise the awareness around some of the behaviors that we see.

Has there been further progress in the area since you joined the company?

We're just getting started. We've had progress in terms of having conversations with women, restarting the whole Prism initiative. Last year, when we had so much of the #MeToo movement in India, we were proactive in actually talking to the women and reaching out and making sure that we prevent an occurrence like this in our workplace. So we had a lot of conversations around creating awareness around what harassment is and what sexual harassment means, what you can do if you are to encounter it and what you should do when you encounter some behavior that makes you uncomfortable.

We also spoke about how do you draw your own boundaries. So we had those conversations proactively with the women to make sure that we don't have such an occurrence over here. And that they know that if there is any chance that something makes them uncomfortable, they always have recourse over here. As a second step, we created awareness around what constitutes harassment, what is a safe work environment, and what are some of the things that they cannot do. The kind of language they can't use and the boundaries of friendship that they need to be aware of. Some of it was uncomfortable discussion, but I much rather be proactive in having this versus not having it or having to deal with an issue later on.\

What are your goals in this area over the next five years?

We have a number of ways we’re trying to ensure we provide a secure and supportive work environment and allowing women to grow. Success for me is going to be a better gender balance in leadership positions.

Which diversity initiatives (gender or otherwise) are underway at Freshworks today? Can you elaborate on any?

We've added two more things to our diversity initiatives this year. One is to have a network of women so that we have the opportunity to come together and learn and support each other as well. Oftentimes, we are not alone in the things we’re going through and we can learn from each other. Secondly, we also believe in giving back to the community. I think all of us women over here are very fortunate to be where we are. We've had great education, the fortune of being in a good company, and certain privileges that other women might not have. So our Prism networking group is working on creating an opportunity to give back to other girls and women in society. We hope to be able to do a lot more of this, not just in India, but globally too.

If there was one thing the rest of the industry could learn from Freshworks about building a stronger and more diverse team, what would it be?

Freshworks really knows how to assemble a team that is very diverse in its composition. I don't only mean gender diversity. If you look at the way Girish assembled his first core team, or maybe even hired the first set of people that we hired, he never looked for pedigree. We did not go and say that the best marketing person is probably going to come from a B school, or from a SAS background or an IT background. Obviously functional technical knowledge is important, but what he really did was to look for passion and potential. His biggest philosophy is if somebody has the smarts, but more than that has the passion for it, they're going to be so much more successful than somebody who has the pedigree or the experience alone. They're the ones who are really going to be with you on this journey.

We’ve got someone who is an engineering graduate who loves design so he did his Masters in Design, came into Marketing and is now into HR. Today, he looks after all our university hiring. He doesn't necessarily have the background for university hiring, but what he has is a passion for it. That makes him better than anybody else that I have seen. That's kind of been our philosophy in assembling some of the core talents that we had. A philosophy which has led us to have a lot of diversity just in itself. You will find people with so many different backgrounds and specializations and interests.

Refresh, our annual event that happens is purely put together by employees and you will see all kinds of talents showcased over there. We have professional playback singers. professional theatre artists, stand up comedians. So as we grow, we are looking for functional technical expertise but I think we continue to be an organization that fundamentally looks at whether you have the smarts and the passion and the enthusiasm to do what you need to do.

What advice would you give a young woman or anyone identifying as a minority starting out in the tech industry on how to avoid gender blockers at work?

A few things. First of all, there is you and there is the organization. As a woman in tech or as women, even otherwise, you have to be passionate about the career you choose. Be passionate about what you do and make a few choices that you need to make about how you want your career to move. Don't be afraid to make choices because a lot of times, what I have seen young girls do is put artificial boundaries around their career. Including thinking about life stages, what society is going to expect and what family is going to expect. I would always start by thinking about what is it that you want. If you put yourself to what you want to do, you can build everything around that. Have that confidence in yourself and in your ability to succeed, have that ambition, don't be afraid to have ambition, and don't put artificial guard rails around your career. That's the first thing I would tell any young woman.

The second thing is that, seek an organization that matches your passion and your work style, I think it's really important. As women, we have a lot going on in our lives and so when we have to give our hundred percent to an organization, we would rather choose an organization that we are passionate about and is committed too. In the organization, try and find mentors and people that you can reach out to for advice, and who you can see as role models, and who can help remove some roadblocks for you. Every organization has that and so I would always advise women to build a network. Don't feel shy about reaching out and asking for advice, career advice, or help or just network. It's very helpful for you in terms of building your career and it's also very helpful when you want to change careers or want to come back as well.

What advice would you give a young man or anyone identifying as a majority on how to avoid becoming or inadvertently supporting a blocker?

I would give advice to young kids on how to become better men but when you come into the workforce, I think the advice I would give men is to be conscious about not building cliques that can be seen as a boys’ club. Be conscious of being more inclusive and respectful. Boys’ clubs end with college and when you come into a workplace, you want to make sure that you are helping others thrive.


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